Shrine Handmaid

The handmaid of Firelink Shrine doesn’t do her job well considering the copious ash littering the place. Instead, her cleanup seems more to support being a merchant on the side. The old woman’s initial wares are all fairly generic items that one normally wouldn’t expect to find at a shrine. But given that warriors — alive and dead — pass through there on the regular, these various items are easily leftovers; many are the same provided with our chosen background. Indeed, the specific hall where we find the handmaid is cluttered with small graves, mixed among the ash piles with human bones. The walls look to have been broken down to make room for erecting these headstones, unlike the rest piled up in the shrine. In other words, the graves probably buried those bones, perhaps former staff who would be allowed to truly die — they have decayed, unlike the entombed unkindled and Lords of Cinders merely sealed with sleep. And since this setup is unique to her corner of the shrine, the handmaid is most likely responsible for digging the bones up and taking whatever valuables they might have possessed.

Well, well, ashen one. The old hag is the handmaid of this ritual place. Varieties of weapons and armor, tools and magics… I offer an assortment required for your mission… Of course, the old hag is likewise undead. Not that they will be free of charge, though. Ashen one, please steal souls and bring them to me. Isn’t that very much your livelihood? Eeh hee hee…

This graverobbing is highlighted in other aspects as well. Equipment belonging to certain enemies or NPCs becomes available for sale from the handmaid after their death, as if she looted the items from their remains herself. Much like Domhnall in the original Dark Souls, (DS1) this concept is, more than likely, purely thematic — just like the merchant from Zena, she sells armor of the Lord of Cinder final boss in NG+. Even her “uniform” was potentially pilfered from one of the old Fire Keepers from Dark Souls II, her robes identical to theirs save for the faded color. Given the origins of Lothric religion, the retirees were probably responsible for passing on the Fire Keepers’ secrets to Lothric when it assumed the firelinking mantle. In that case, their bodies may have been honorbly interred there only to later be desecrated by an unscrupulous handmaid. Whatever the truth, however, cleaning out people’s corpses along with their dust presents plenty of opportunity to collect trash for resale as treasure. And with unkindled now awakened to seek Lords of Cinder, she has the perfect opportunity to bargain for souls.

The handmaid makes a point of being undead like us, feeding off the death of others. But her undeath is due to the curse of the shrine, not the Darksign. If we kill her, we are met not with a Hollow or corpse but the knowing laughter of a handmaid, amused by our presumed shock that she is still alive and well. But as she then reveals, she is “undead” in that her life is chained to the shrine, the vindictive old woman reveling in jacking up her prices as retribution — which only increase with each failed murder attempt. And while she is a self-described “miser” for souls instead of coin, her vitality on death is in reference to expanding her wares from ashen remains. The items she derives seem to closely relate to the ashes’ owners, similar to products of soul transposition. This may be why she keeps incense burners, stimulating what little souls remain in ash with smell as part of some ritual. Whatever her exact tools, the handmaid uses death to aid us which in turn sustains her immortality.

… Ashen one, if the old hag’s items prove insufficient, please bring me ashen remains. If you do, this old hag will have new items to offer from the ashen remains. Is it not our curse to be nourished with death? Ahahahaha… ha.

… Well, well, you have brought me ashen remains? Then let us use this as as an old hag’s nourishment. May the new items be to your liking. Ahahahaha… ha.

Arggggggh! You do terrible things, to an old hag like me…

… Ha hahahaha. You are a terrible person. But, ’tis a shame. The old hag is, as you see, undead… Because she will be captured by Firelink’s curse forever. More importantly, no regrets. The more the old hag dies, the more she becomes a miser. Haha… Ahahahaha. Ahahahaha… ha.

Her choice of currency is curious considering the common circumstance with her cohorts. Andre, Ludleth, and the Fire Keeper all arguably require souls to perform their individual functions on our behalf, but the handmaid simply takes the ash and produces the items, adding the price tag after the fact. In that case, why does she need souls for longevity and not them? Perhaps they do. One risk of using the Abyss as the basis for a curse is the Dark’s hunger for the soul it is tied to. And as Undead demonstrate, the best means stave off such a curse is feeding it others as substitute. In short, the handmaid may be collecting souls not just for herself but for all the shrine’s residents bound by the curse. This would explain why she has no problem selling embered humanity — more dark souls for the Abyss will only add to the problem if anything. With just the standard souls she collects, she can secure everyone’s future.

Performing soul offerings to the Dark also explains her casual behavior in the Untended Graves, having probably interacted with the Abyss on more than one occasion by that point. Indeed, another hint to this would be her eyesight. The handmaid has her eyes wrapped in bandages as if damaged or otherwise ineffective. Nonetheless, her head still follows our position even when we have silenced our movements. She hasn’t donned a special mask like the Fire Keeper, so why can she still see us beneath the blindfold? Perhaps because she no longer “sees” the same as we do. Prolonged exposure to the Abyss for the offering ceremonies may have atrophied her sight, reliant on light as it was. But rather than disable her eyes, the Dark might have simply transformed their function. We already see something similar occur with the first Fire Keeper, and unlike her, the handmaid isn’t in any way linked to fire. Add in the Dark’s dominion over space, and she may have an even stronger grasp of her surroundings than before, requiring the bandages to protect her from the light.

Overall, there is little reason to doubt that the handmaid is performing a vital function for the shrine. The only question is why leave this to a handmaid, one easily answered by her vocational history. For before she became Firelink Shrine’s caretaker, the old woman was a High Priestess of Lothric. Aside from selling the ritual chief’s ring in the Untended Graves, the old woman also sits in a fancy chair like those in Lothric Castle, and her surrounding incense burners are also found at Archdragon Peak. Indeed, she must have been part of the clergy to receive a post at the kingdom’s most sacred site — even Andre had credentials working at the gods’ smithy beforehand. Her work as Lothric’s top ritualist also covers for her knowledge in deriving items from ash, especially if she is employing holy incense in the process. The only reason to doubt the handmaid’s background is her behavior.

For a former church leader, the old woman isn’t very moralistic. If she receives ashes still warm, she readily infers that they come from a fresh kill yet does nothing but poke fun at our presumed misdeed since it is still ash, feigning ignorance even after multiple incidents. She likewise considers obtaining embers through devotion to others, literally “self-sacrifice”, (献身) as summoned spirits to be an immature concept, implicitly because we Undead seeking the remaining fire of Lords rely on souls robbed from others to pursue that path. But if we are intent on cooperating across time and space, the handmaid is more than happy to take those stolen souls of ours for a soapstone. She wholeheartedly embraces the greed admonished in her religion, indifferent to the consequences. Quite perverse for a cleric doing all this on behalf of a holy mission, but a lifetime of experience may be to blame.

But these are also warm ashen remains. As if they were alive just a short time ago… Oh, forgive me. Prying was uncalled for. The ashen one at least wouldn’t do terrible things like that…

Well, well, more warm ashen remains. You seem to have a curious connection to death… Oh, forgive me. Prying was uncalled for. More than anything, you are already aware. Of this old hag’s miserliness…… Ahahahaha. Haaah… hahahahahahaha!

… Are you aware of the childish expression? It says that devotion be the path for embers. Therefore, ashen one. If it so pleases you, request a soapstone. Please grace the old hag with souls… Ahahahaha.

The handmaid has a peculiar reaction to the Dreamchaser’s Ashes, particularly curious about how we came about them. This can be construed as more of her black humor, but a few things stand out. For one, she immediately identifies what should be just another “pitiful” ash as belonging to a fool, expecting few items worth obtaining from them. Nonetheless, she derives the most unique items from them, excluding ashes of named characters who provide their own saleable inventories. So, what makes her so certain that these are a fool’s ashes? The only discernible trait of its menu graphic is the pendant clutched in a man’s hand. This token resembles the generic pendant from DS1, which embodied sentimental memories of close family back home. In other words, this pendant relates to a loved one in the man’s life before undeath. And if the handmaid recognized the personal trinket, then she would have been intimately familiar with the owner.

… Ashen one, you have brought me more pitiful ashen remains. These are the ashen remains of a fool… Even the items to obtain will probably be few. When and where did you pick these up? Please let the old hag hear about it, for the sport.

… Oh, well, well… It is pitiful, dreams in a dying world and all… These really are the ashen remains of a fool. Don’t you think so, too? Ahahahaha…

Indeed, one of the items derived from these ashes is a hidden blessing, indicating that their owner frequented the Cemetery of Ash where both the queen’s holy water and the handmaid were left. Who was he to have this level of access to Lothric Castle? Other items derived from his ashes include the composite bow and feather arrows, a warrior’s weapon with a hunter’s ammunition. Add on top of that titanite shards. He had an interest in strengthening his weaponry but wasn’t in a position to collect them like the dragon chaser or invested in armaments like Shiva, both of whose ashes manifest better titanite. In short, the man was a low-profile soldier turned hunter after suffering undeath. But being branded with the curse was apparently convenient for him. Another of his ash items is the Life Ring, revealing his desire to extend his own life, and his remains’ description affirm that he dreamed of joining Farron’s Undead Legion. And with Lothric dumping its Undead in a town near their Keep, that dream of his was well within reach.

The description to his remains affirms that he traversed Farron’s rotten forest to chase after his dream, collecting black bug pellets, rotten pine resin, green blossoms, and golden pine resin along the way; the excursion would also explain the shift to hunting. We collect the ash from his remains in a short hall overlooking the Old Wolf’s chamber in Lothric’s bridge, hidden from the outside behind an illusory wall. Most likely, he cast the illusion himself to hide from pursuers, the numerous slugs otherwise inexplicably gathering around the ladder required to reach his area. But having not collected any purple moss clumps, he was still doomed to die to the ills of the poison swamp he undoubtedly waded through to have first catch the slugs’ attention. Even so, the reprieve from the heat of the chase would give the dreamer the chance to spot the Old Wolf inside. Being able to see the source of Legion membership before he died is the obvious “small success” to his dream made “at the end” of his cursed existence — tragically, it appears that he succumbed to the poison just as he began climbing down to get closer.

Ashen remains of a person who dreamed of being a member of the Undead Troop. The handmaid of the ritual place will have new items to offer.

The dreamchaser who wandered the rotten forest probably achieved a small success at the end.

None of this would be immediately obvious to a third party like us, even if entering the scene not too long after the fact; at most, we could say that these ashes belong to some traveler who came upon the Keep’s giant wolf. And yet, in echoing our statement to her, the handmaid bemoans his “dreams” in our “dying world”, clearly adding personal spin. That conclusion is simply too great a jump without being privy to the man’s personal life. Combined with the implications behind the pendant, and the former High Priestess must have been dear family, such as his mother. Someone like a son could feasibly be permitted to see the handmaid at Firelink Shrine. Likewise, this relation might motivate the handmaid to derive extra items from his remains, for more information on his last moments if nothing else. Relation to the High Priestess would even explain where the dreamchaser learned that simple illusory trick. It might even explain the text for Farron Dart among her wares.

The dreamchaser evidently grew up decades ago when Farron was in its heyday, its Abyss Watchers known far and wide. For a boy who would eventually take the path of a soldier, stories of men who eternally combat the unholy forces of evil despite their curse would dazzle the imagination. And with the Keep operating under Lothric’s protection, the Legion could be considered the kingdom’s own special Undead unit. Add in his mother being a religious authority, and it is only natural that he hoped to join the Legion, the closest thing to holy orders a Lothric warrior could muster should he end up cursed. In that case, the handmaid may not have collected Farron Dart from a corpse to sell to unkindled originally; rather, the High Priestess could have acquired the spell text through her country’s connections to the Crystal Sage, letting her boy get a sneak peek at Farron’s progress with the academy their kingdom helped establish. Either way, she is most likely the loved one who raised him on that dream. The dreamchaser being the handmaid’s son also fills in for an otherwise missing generation.

After providing the handmaid the Dreamchaser’s Ashes, Sirris will make her second visit to Firelink Shrine, apparently having learned about our “kind” self from someone. The obvious candidate is the handmaid, a mother reunited with her son regardless of whether we share details surrounding his death; she seems to have also encouraged the knight to offer us her summon sign, citing the same expression the handmaid maligns. When Sirris then later goes to confront Hodrick, the handmaid begins selling a blooming green blossom with an attached note addressed to the knight’s grandmother detailing her destination. This implies that the handmaid is the grandmother in question, which explains Sirris’ regular visits when she is not unkindled; she is keeping in touch with her kin. On this point, Sirris also addresses Hodrick as her grandfather with just as much affection. We can likewise presume that the grandparents shared a relationship with each other — why else would Sirris feel the need to mention who she was going to see? If so, then theirs was quite the long-distance relationship.

… Oh, you, we meet again. Since then, I have heard stories about you again and again… They say that you are a very kind person. I too am one with a mission, but I think I can at least write a sign. I have heard that devotion be the path for embers. If it will help you, please use it.

Green weed like a large flower. Small white flowers have bloomed.

Temporarily greatly raises stamina recovery speed.

It was probably someone’s gift. A short message accompanies it:

Grandma, goodbye. I am going to see grandfather in the Pit of Hollows.

As lifelong servants of the gods in their respective countries, the handmaid and Hodrick both had permanent roots at home. And while the two neighboring states’ diplomatic ties might have allowed the occasional visit and thereby romance, that doesn’t leave much room for a holy knight and holy woman to settle down together and raise a family. More than likely, the latter would be forced to give birth to and raise any children conceived all on her own back home. The fact that Sirris lived in Irithyll with her grandfather when her father had lived in Lothric with her grandmother only highlights the strain on this relationship. And what ties did exist to keep the family together could only last for so long with the eldest generation. The grandfather was banished when he didn’t stay dead, whereas the grandmother was confined for that sake. In her case, this might even be nepotism.

Between the dreamchaser and Sirris, the mother and grandmother’s lifetime before becoming an immortal handmaid must precede Emma and the other High Priestesses of the current generation. In that case, she would have probably been wet nurse to a prior prince. And the only known candidate of that generation is the later King Oceiros. Given his obsession with firelinking, it is easy to imagine the former prince leaving the role of custodian for its facilities to his wet nurse, someone he could trust to faithfully fulfill the duty — the High Priestess did likely play a huge part in his religious fervor.  And while dusting Prince Lothric’s throne would be ultimately for naught, the handmaid obviously has had no choice in the matter. Her son allowed her to receive visitors for a time, but being a soldier all but guaranteed a premature death, and even undeath wouldn’t stop permanent separation of this mother and son. At that point, she would only have the duty that her king had imposed on her.

Where then would that leave Sirris? The caged madmen detail how a grandmother has disappeared and is “alone again” in the Japanese script, leaving the grandchild shouldering an empty cage in need of a substitute. Mad ramblings or no, the coded message asks Mound-makers to fill-in for the grandmother, Mound-makers like Hodrick. This opens the possibility of the message reflecting Hodrick’s family history. The High Priestess “disappeared” to become the handmaid, a lonely fate briefly alleviated by her son’s visits with the young Sirris potentially in tow. Once he too left the picture, the old woman was again alone while the grandchild was left shouldering the burden of their absence, at which point Hodrick stepped in to substitute. With the mother evidently missing from this whole scene, the girl would finish being raised in Irithyll by her paladin grandfather, perhaps even inspiring her to become a Darkmoon Knight. When he too was forced to leave her, she apparently promised to find him again. But those longing words evidently failed to bring him much comfort in exile.

The grandma who disappeared is alone again. So the grandkid stays ever shouldering the cage. The grandkid stays shouldering the cage. The grandma who disappeared stays disappeared. Someone enter the cage, enter in grandma’s stead.

I finally found you, Grandpa. It was a promise, after all.

As a holy knight of Irithyll, Hodrick must have taken his curse hard. Some fans have posited that the paladin was a particularly zealous believer, based on his armor referring to him as a “crazed ghoul” of the battlefield in descriptions. However, this is referring to his present form, which is viewed as a “ghost” (亡霊) and specifically “mad spirit” (狂った霊) as a Mound-maker. What we can say that he is able to invade, indicating that he has acquired the red eye orb of Darkwraiths — a foe he could have feasibly faced in the course of his duties. He served the gods well, and yet still he was branded with the mark of impiety and promptly abandoned by them. His golden armor representing the sunset of nightfall has not been well-maintained since, the color faded and partially obscured by dirty, ragged cloth wraps — the latter seem to particularly help obscure his face so that he isn’t recognized when not on the hunt for shackles. His equipment, like his faith, has been tarnished by the inconvenient truth discovered in isolation from his true family. The gods had always been lying to him. They took away his family.

Helmet of Hodrick, holy knight of the Country of Nightfall.

The golden helmet that took the name of its sunset color is now faded and concealed with filthy, worn-out cloth, and that form is known as a ghost of the battlefield.

As a mad spirit that swoops down upon friend and foe alike.

But Sirris has been squarely focused on fulfilling her promise. Perhaps she hoped to reconstitute their broken family, hence visiting the handmaid after a change in administration back home forced the Darkmoon Knight from her duty. But what she ended up finding was that the grandfather she loved had become the very enemy of the gods she hunted; that betrayal could never be reconciled. She picked what might be the last flowers she would gift her grandmother — likely during the same visit to the Boreal Valley where she ended up invaded by Creighton — and let her know that she was going to settle this family matter. With our help, she lives through all this. And with her grandfather’s shield left on one of the graves outside Firelink Shrine to memorialize his passing, she finds nothing else to live for. In gratitude, the knight offers a vow of fealty until our unkindled mission’s completion, but once we have retrieved our last Lord of Cinder, we will find her dead in front of “Hodrick’s” grave.

… Oh, I have been waiting for you. I am truly sorry for involving you in my mission, no, little promise… And also, thank you so much. Grandfather can finally rest, and I can finally die.

In all this, we see that the handmaid is consistently left behind. For their service to the gods, her family has been broken time and time again. Even so, she can’t muster much care. She disparages her son as a pitiful fool dying for a futile dream. She ignores the revelation that her old flame still lives; the miserly handmaid isn’t even sentimental enough to keep her granddaughter’s last gift to her. And when she apparently finds that granddaughter’s corpse in the cemetery, she loots the armor for her wares, though this isn’t reflected in Sirris’ “dead” model. One might think her the black-hearted hag she demeans herself as, but her hidden appreciation for giving her filial closure cuts through the facade. Clearly the handmaid simply dissociates from anything that could bring her further emotional turmoil. Better to ride the path ahead with cavalier indifference. No point in getting hung up about an unfair fate, just play along. Kindness must be indirect, unnoticed in this cruel world. Let none know you are vulnerable, even when it does hurt.

If this is her way to cope with her abandonment issues, then it proves wise. Refusing Sirris’ offer to assist with our holy mission leads to her becoming a Hollow bowing her head to the Mound-makers’ altar. She and Hodrick both go mad from losing their family and purpose in spite of their piety, inevitably drifting toward proof of the gods’ lies as a surrogate; they have nothing but their spite to embrace. In that regard, the handmaid cutting off any attachment to the hole in her own heart may be the one thing that has kept her sane in her prison. Her opinion on things no longer matters, if they ever did. She would know more than anyone that preserving the Age of Fire is a farce, but all she can do is fulfill her part and let the rest play out as it will. If the world she fervently believed in as High Priestess is doomed for destruction, then she can at least get a chuckle in as a handmaid before the end. Indeed, if her connection to the Abyss still holds, she will be the one having the last laugh, even as she is left behind by everyone once more.